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4 plus-size women on the harsh reality of eating in public – and how they continue to overcome it

From unwarranted comments to unnecessary stares, four women speak to Stylist about the complex reality of eating in public for plus-size women.

Trigger warning: this article discusses eating disorders which some readers might find triggering

“Ever notice how smaller-bodied public figures can eat whatever they want and somehow that’s either ignored or seen as cute?!”

This statement, posted online by model Tess Holliday is one that struck a chord with many.

Last month, the body positivity activist penned a poignant message on Twitter that reminded us all of the constant fatphobic lens many plus size women are seen through after she was photographed by the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror eating ice cream while on a family trip to Disneyland.

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“When they create a breeding ground for body-shaming comments, they create a swamp where hatred of others and of ourselves can grow,” she continued. “It’s just not productive – if we want to live in a better, kinder world, we need to reject this kind of harmful behaviour.

While the mere act of someone eating isn’t something that should be the topic of conversation, what Holliday experienced represents the judgement and commentary plus-size women continue to deal with on a daily basis and that many are still silently suffering with.

“There is still a lack of understanding of how diet culture and fatphobia affects people, especially fat people,” says Ratnadevi Manokaran, a digital creator from Malaysia.

Manokaran tells Stylist that she still feels the judgement placed on her by others when eating in a public space and it is something that she has endured her entire life.

“When I was about 10 years old, I would cycle to school and usually would be in a rush so I would go without breakfast,” she says.

“I used to buy some fried noodles and roti from the school canteen and my friends then would ask me why I was eating so much.

“People would always tell me ‘Are you sure you want to eat that? Do you know how bad that is for you?’ And when I started dating men, they would also do this and would order for me and ask me to change my order because it was not as ‘healthy’.”

These unwarranted interactions created a complex that festered deep within Manokaran and the idea of eating in a public place continues to stir up emotions from her past experiences. 

“If I was in a public place, even up until recently, and someone was laughing, I would think that they are laughing at me because of how fat I am, because that’s happened to me so many times.”

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This trauma is shared by Hollie Burgess, a blogger and podcaster from Nottinghamshire, who was also criticised in her youth and still carries some of that hurt today.

“I remember being a teenager and walking through a park, and I was eating and a couple of guys shouted, ‘Who ate all the pies?’

“I laugh at it now because I’m quite a confident person and I’ve grown a thick skin but that kind of thing has stuck with me and I do little things still to protect myself.

“For example, when I’m out in public, if I get on the train and it’s about lunchtime, I always eat my sandwich when I’m on the platform because it’s almost as though I don’t want to be in a public sphere with the risk of someone judging me.”

“There is so much to eating in restaurants that isn’t just about the food for fat people,” says editor and The Fat Zine founder Gina Tonic.

“Chairs may be too small or the arms don’t allow for us to sit. The spaces between tables make it difficult to move around the restaurant. The toilet cubicles may be too small and so much more.”

These encounters can often create a breeding ground for fear in a world that has created toxic environments for plus-size women to just be – and it can have a drastic impact on women’s mental and physical health.

“Weight stigma and diet culture are disastrous for anyone’s mental health, but fatphobia is especially painful,” says Tonic. “For every negative thought you’ve had about yourself, there are thousands of people – online and offline – who very much agree that you should feel negative about yourself.” 

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“When I was entrenched in diet culture and became hyper-aware of the ways that my eating choices were linked to my body size and concepts of my health and even morality, I would often find the process of eating in public really stressful,” says speaker and writer Ragen Chastain.

“This was compounded by the fact that I was very physically active and the performative eating that was demanded of me in order to avoid scrutiny was not in line with the nutrition my body required to engage in the activities I loved. My relationship with food eventually devolved into a full-blown eating disorder.”

“At every family gathering and on festive occasions, I had to control my food intake,” shares Manokaran.

“At one point I resorted to throwing up because I overheard someone say it would be good to eat without putting on weight and I thought maybe they’re right. I would wait until everyone went to sleep at home before I would binge eat because I starved myself throughout the day. 

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“I spent these years mostly in my room and I struggled with my eating disorder, depression and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).”

Overcoming these struggles is a constant work-in-progress and requires unpacking and unlearning toxic, ingrained beauty standards that live deep within us. But the growth of the body positivity movement and the creation of online spaces for other plus-size women to congregate and exist without questions, queries or criticism has helped many to rebuild and reimagine their lives without the outside pressures seeping in.

“Sometimes I feel absolutely incredible about myself and empowered by my body and a big part of making myself feel better is seeing other people with the same body thriving,” says Tonic.

“Following fat people on social media, especially ones I look up to, makes me find so much worth in myself and in my community. There’s power in numbers and it’s harder to hate yourself when you find love in others who look like you.”

For Chastain, a drastic change in her mindset helped her to overcome her disordered eating and the constant pressures many plus-size women can face when eating in public.

“I fixed my relationship with food and eating in public by first acknowledging that weight stigma is real and that it does real harm to me.

“Understanding that, I realised that until it was possible to end fatphobia, my choices were to continue to fight my body on behalf of weight stigma, or to start fighting weight stigma on behalf of my body and I chose the latter. That includes refusing to eat performatively or to engage with or care about other people’s unsolicited opinions about my food choices or body.”

“The discussion needs to move from plus-size people eating in public to accepting that plus-size people should just be able to get on with their lives,” says Burgess.

“And that’s the end of the story.”

Holliday’s post saw hundreds of people share their support for the author and speak to their own experiences, with one writing: “Don’t let them bring you down. You are beautiful and an inspiration,” while another said: “Can I just say: I love you! I honestly do! You have done more for me than I could ever and I have gleaned so much strength from your posts. All I can say is I am incredibly grateful!”

While Holliday’s post only scratched the surface of the fatphobic assumptions many plus-size women face, it serves as an important reminder that we all deserve to exist and seek joy wherever we find it – and many of us we’ll continue to fiercely defend those who say otherwise.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, contact Beat Eating Disorders for information and support.

Images: Ratnadevi Manokaran and Gina Tonic